Cover letters and resumes are important documents that showcase your capabilities, education and experience when applying for a job. Cover letters serve a different purpose than resumes and allow you to expand more on your qualifications. Knowing what makes a compelling and effective cover letter will help you to write one that stands out from other candidates. In this article, we explore the purpose of a cover letter, why it is important to submit one for a job application and tips to help you write your own.
What is a cover letter?
A cover letter is a professional document that provides information about why you're interested in working for the company, your background and your qualifications. Cover letters are usually one page long, written in paragraph and letter form, whereas resumes often include bullet points.
A well-written, engaging, and thoroughly proofread cover letter can help position you as a qualified candidate for a job opening. You can also use it to elaborate on areas of your resume or to address other topics, such as your connection to the person who referred you. A cover letter is typically sent with other materials, like a resume, curriculum vitae (CV) or examples of your work.
What is the purpose of a cover letter?
The purpose of a cover letter is to help you stand out as a viable candidate when applying for jobs. Some hiring managers place a high value on cover letters, while others only request a resume. Writing a cover letter can help you get noticed by talent teams regardless of whether it is mandatory in the application process. They also have these five distinct purposes:
Gives your background story
A cover letter lets you elaborate on your background, experience, and education before an interview. You can expand on memorable professional achievements, discuss your interest in a particular company or role, and talk about what makes you a powerful match for the position. Cover letters allow you to establish your personal brand, show you core values and make an impression with a hiring manager or company.
You may also use a cover letter to explain your current situation. For example, if you gained a new degree or credential, are shifting career paths, or are an entry-level employee looking to get into a certain field or industry.
Describes your relationship with the referral source
Job referrals are a great way to apply for a position, and in many companies, these applicants get looked at first for potential interviews. A cover letter allows you to expand on your relationship with the person who referred you, including how long you have known each other or how you heard about the job opening. There are a variety of ways through which you can earn a referral, including:
- A former colleague or work associate
- A recruiting organization
- A friend or family member that is a current employee
- A professional contact with industry networking or association memberships
Builds a relationship with the employer
Building relationships with those in your industry can help you achieve your career goals. A cover letter is one way you can build connections and relationships. For example, a strong cover letter can leave an impression on a hiring manager who might stay in touch with you for future opportunities, even if the position you applied to is awarded to someone else.
Relays important career achievements
Since candidates often send a cover letter together with a resume or CV, use it to show your personality to an employer and let your resume or CV give a factual history of your achievements and work. Consider focusing on one or two of your most significant achievements in your professional career and discuss why they were significant. This helps show recruiters and talent managers what you bring to a job beyond the standard duties and responsibilities.
Explains areas of concern
Cover letters can also be used to expand on areas of concern your employer may have in a controlled and positive way. For example, if you have taken several years off from the workforce to be a stay-at-home parent or have recently gone back to school for another degree, you can use the opportunity to explain the gap in your work experience. By addressing these circumstances before the employer brings them up, they may view you as respectable and direct.
When do you submit a cover letter?
While some companies or roles may only request a job application or resume as part of the application process, it is becoming more common for professional roles to request a cover letter. Here are four specific instances in which you should attach a cover letter to your resume or job application:
- If someone referred you to the role. Job referrals may have a different application process than a standard application. Send a copy of your application documents to the person who referred you so they can forward them to human resources or the hiring manager. Apply also through the formal application process to ensure your application is received. Use your cover letter to highlight your connection to the company.
- If you know the name of the talent or hiring manager. If you know a hiring manager's name, address your cover letter to that person specifically. This fine detail can help you stand apart from other candidates who address their cover letter generically and may influence your chances of getting an invitation to interview.
- If the position or job description requires one. Carefully review the application steps for a job as they will often state if a cover letter is required. Consider writing a cover letter even if directions say it is optional.
- If the employer asks for one during the interview. In rare cases, they might ask you during an interview to write a cover letter for other leaders involved in the hiring process. It is a good habit to have a version of a cover letter ready in case you may unexpectedly need one.
What are some tips for writing a cover letter?
Writing excellent cover letters takes time and practice, but it is a skill that you can develop and refine. Here are four tips to consider when writing your next cover letter:
Read the job description thoroughly and pick out keywords
Most job descriptions outline the desired qualifications, experience and education required for the position they are hiring for, which can help you identify if you are a viable candidate. Review the details thoroughly, paying attention to application instructions, like having a specific file type for your cover letter, CV, or resume, or requesting examples of your work.
When writing your cover letter, consider using several of the keywords or adjectives used in the job description. This can help a hiring manager view you as a qualified match and even help pass automated applicant tracking systems (ATS) used by many employers. For example, if a job opening says "a passionate and experienced lawyer," consider having a sentence in your cover letter like "a dedicated and passionate lawyer with ten years of experience in family law."
Give yourself enough time to tailor it
Focusing your cover letter on the benefits you will bring to the company will improve your chances of getting an interview. Take ample time to craft a tailored version of your cover letter for each job application, giving it a personalized and prioritized feel. Consider developing a general template of your career achievements that is easy to customize to specific roles.
Related: How to Format a Cover Letter
Build a portfolio of your work and link to it
Consider building a digital portfolio of your work, especially if you are in a creative field like writing, photography, or art. Your digital portfolio can be a website or a link to a digital file folder housing your work samples. Use your cover letter to link to your portfolio, inviting a hiring manager to browse your work. Consider bringing a printed copy of your work if they ask you to interview. Be mindful that you should vary your samples and demonstrate your competencies without overwhelming the reader.
Some ideas to include in a digital portfolio are:
- Brief biography
- Career summary or objective
- Examples of your work
- References or testimonials
Check your social media accounts
Some job candidates provide links to their social media accounts on a resume or cover letter, especially to professional networks and platforms. Post articles or topics that interest you while job hunting to help potential employers determine if you are the right fit for their workplace. For personal social accounts, be mindful of what you include or consider adjusting your view settings during a job search period.